It is only natural that the gaze of African football is focused squarely on this year’s FIFA World Cup™ and the legacy it will leave behind. Yet while the biggest show on earth will continue to dominate attention, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that South Africa will host another competition later this year that could help transform a separate area of the continent’s football landscape.
That tournament, set to kick off in October, is the CAF Women’s Championship, offering an opportunity for Africa’s top female footballers to show that the Mother Continent doesn’t only produce stars of the men’s game. Eagerly anticipating its arrival is Fran Hilton-Smith, a former South Africa international who has gone on to act as Banyana Banyana coach and team manager, as well as serving as a FIFA instructor and member of the governing body's Technical Study Group. No-one knows African women’s football better, and Hilton-Smith is convinced that, for all the obstacles in their way, many of October’s hopefuls can follow the likes of Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o by forging a career overseas.
Just as important to African women’s football is the emergence of identifiable stars and role models, and Hilton-Smith will be among those hoping for a repeat of the last CAF Women’s Championship, which developed into an enthralling personal battle between two brilliant youngsters. South Africa’s Alice 'Noko' Matlou and Genoveva Anonma of Equatorial Guinea shared the top scorer award with six goals apiece, but it was Anonma, then just 17, who was named MVP after inspiring the hosts to an unlikely continental conquest.
“It was a great battle,” reflected Hilton-Smith. “Genoveva was playing in her home country and played a huge part in her team’s success, so I can see why she won the award. She’s certainly a talent, and a free-kick expert too. But personally I felt the award should have been shared, simply because the two players were so evenly matched. Matlou was superb for us and scored some spectacular goals, so I thought it was impossible to split them.”
They weren’t at all happy with what happened last time and I think they realised that they had relied on the same group of players for too long.
Consolation came for the Banyana Banyana ace later the same year when she was named CAF Female Player of the Year, and October will offer these two rivals the chance to renew their battle for supremacy. The pair’s paths since the 2008 edition have, however, taken them in very different directions. Anonma cashed in on her meteoric rise to prominence almost immediately by moving to Bundesliga outfit FF USV Jena, becoming a regular in the side and climbing to fourth in the German scoring charts this season.
Matlou, meanwhile, lost out on a switch to Wolfsburg, and opted instead to move to Canada, where she has enrolled in university to combine football with studying for a longer-term future outside the game. Not that the 23-year-old – nicknamed Chuck Norris by friends due to her fighter’s nature – has given up on her dream of turning professional. She was again outstanding during the recent Cyprus Cup, even scoring against her adopted country, and will be well worth watching when the African showpiece rolls around.
So will several others. Hilton-Smith expects, for example, that after losing their continental crown for the first time in 2008, Nigeria will return with a point to prove and a host of new stars. “They weren’t at all happy with what happened last time and I think they realised that they had relied on the same group of players for too long,” she told FIFA.com. “What they’ve done since then is made some big changes, freshened things up and brought in some good new players, so I expect them to be very strong.”
Yet Hilton-Smith also has high hopes for Augustine Makalakalane’s South Africa side, and with a place in the final – and a spot at the FIFA Women’s World Cup – their pre-tournament target, she believes that Banyana Banyana possess individuals capable of setting the tournament alight.
“Busisiwe Ndimeni, for me, is one of the best youngsters around, and although she’s still only 18, she’s long since graduated from the U-20s to the senior team,” said the South Africa team manager. “She actually played for us at the last African Championships and was one of the tournament’s outstanding players, so I’d expect big things from her.
“We also have Lena Mosebo, a good left-sided player who’s over in the US just now. She’s benefited from playing America, as has Veronica Phewa, who’s a great talent. And we have Portia Modise, who’s playing for a club in Denmark and keeps getting better and better. Our vision has to be to get as many African women as possible playing overseas and hopefully this tournament in October will help us to do that.”